Hostages freed as deadly Mali hotel siege ends
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Malian special forces, reportedly backed by French soldiers, ended the deadly siege of a hotel in central Mali town of Sevare early Saturday, liberating the hostages.
Three hostages, five soldiers and four suspected Islamist gunmen died in the siege, a government spokesperson told Reuters.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes as Mali battles a resurgence in jihadist violence, two years after a French-led offensive routed three Islamist factions from most parts of the country.
“It seems to be over and it has ended well,” Colonel Diaran Koné, a defence ministry spokesman, said.
A spokeswoman for MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, later announced that four UN contractors – two South Africans, a Russian and a Ukrainian – had been freed. "At no point were they discovered by the terrorists in the hotel. They were hiding," she said.
The spokeswoman said the five personnel associated with the mission who had been killed were a Nepalese, a South African, two Ukrainians and a Malian.
Attackers stormed the Byblos Hotel, which is frequented by foreign visitors and troops, at around 7:00 am (0700 GMT) Friday, according to the government, with the standoff continuing throughout the day and into Saturday morning.
Earlier Saturday, with the standoff still ongoing, military sources told AFP that five foreigners had been evacuated from the hotel and a “number” of hostages freed as the surrounding area was placed under a military lockdown.
A spokesman for the Russian embassy in Mali had told RIA Novosti state news agency that the Russian hostage was an employee of UTAir, an aviation company which works with the UN peacekeeping mission.
The Ukrainian hostage managed to escape from the “four or five terrorists” who were still barricaded inside the hotel Friday, telling soldiers that he had been with three South Africans and a Russian when the shooting began.
MINUSMA reported that it had sent a Malian rapid response team from the capital Bamako – 620 kilometres (385 miles) to the south – and “reinforced the security of Sevare-Mopti airport”. It also said the initial target of the attack was a Malian military site.
“This hostage-taking is part of the terrorist strategy that Mali and the international community are mobilised against,” Malian Communications Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga told France 24.
MINUSMA said it was liaising with French forces about the response to the Sevare attack. France has more than 1,000 soldiers in northern Mali as part of a regional anti-terrorist operation.
The siege was the third assault in just a week in Mali, which is still struggling to restore stability despite a landmark peace deal agreed in June to end years of unrest and ethnic divisions.
Al Qaeda’s front group in the region AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and two allied Islamist groups seized control of Mali’s north in 2012 before being ousted by French and Malian forces in January 2013.
The insurgents have continued to mount sporadic attacks from their bases in the desert, mainly in the north. But the attacks have spread since the beginning of the year to the centre of the country and in June to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)